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In the face of Iran's race to obtain nuclear weapons, the Israel Air Force has expressed newfound interest in receiving the F-22 - a US-developed fifth generation stealth fighter jet - and has requested that the Defense Ministry present the request on its behalf to the Pentagon, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
While the sale or transfer of F-22s to Israel did not come up in talks Wednesday between Defense Minister Amir Peretz and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, defense officials told the Post that Israel would ask to receive the aircraft in order to retain its "military edge" in the Middle East.
Gates was here for talks with government officials on a range of key strategic issues including American plans - which Israel has objected to - to sell smart bombs to Saudi Arabia.
The F-22 formally entered operational service in the US Air Force in December 2005 but has not yet been sold outside the US due to a federal law which barred export sale of the aircraft.
Last March, however, Congress lifted the nine-year ban on its sale, potentially clearing the path for an Israeli purchase of what is considered the most advanced fighter jet in the world today.
The single-seater, double-engine aircraft can achieve stealth though a combination of its shape, composite materials, color and other integrated systems.
A positive US decision on the issue in the coming months could see the F-22 in Israel by the end of decade, years before the IAF is expected to begin receiving the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) - another stealth fighter under development - also known as the F-35, expected in 2014.
On Thursday, Gates tried to ease Israeli concerns about the planned American weapons sale to Saudi Arabia as well as other US Gulf allies, saying that Washington remained committed to preserving Israel's military edge over its neighbors.
Gates also said his 24-hour trip to Israel did not include any discussions on taking military action against Iran. He reiterated his belief that diplomacy was the best course of action for halting Iran's nuclear program.
Israeli officials have objected to US plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and other moderate Gulf states, fearing it would damage Israel's deterrent capabilities in the Middle East. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Washington had delayed the arms sale package because of the objections.
Speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv before his departure, Gates said he had urged Israeli leaders to look at the deal in terms of the "overall strategic environment" and stressed that Israel's neighbors had other alternatives for purchasing arms.
"I'm confident that the Russians would be very happy to sell weapons to countries in the region," he said. Gates said he affirmed the US would continue to help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge, but did not say whether the Saudi deal would go through. Israel is particularly worried about the planned sale of advanced air systems that would vastly upgrade the striking ability of Saudi warplanes, some of which could be stationed just several hundred kilometers from Israeli airspace.
In response to Israeli concerns about the deal, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington earlier this month that Israel's qualitative military edge "is something that we are dedicated to helping Israel preserve for a number of different reasons - for their defensive needs, for the deterrent nature of that edge, as well as allowing Israel to take calculated risk in the interest of peace. So in any consideration of arms sales in the region, this is an important factor along with our good, strong, close historical relations with countries in the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia."
But the State Department on Thursday didn't indicate that the F-22 would be available to help preserve that edge.
The F-22, a State Department official told The Jerusalem Post, "is not available for international sale. There is specific legislation to that effect since 1997."
Last year, the House appropriations committee did vote to overturn the ban on foreign sales of the F-22, but couldn't get the measure through the House.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who sponsored the legislation, said that the issue "is still a high priority for her" but that the measure had not yet been reintroduced in the new Congress.
Another Granger aide pointed to several foreign countries that might be interested in buying the sophisticated fighter jet, but said that his office had not been in contact with Israel.
Later in the day, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert updated Gates on recent diplomatic developments vis- -vis the Palestinians and on the first indications of the change in the Arab world's attitude towards Israel.
The two men said that strategic changes under way in the Middle East indicated that moderate Arab countries were preparing to deal with the phenomenon of extremist Islam, the main danger to regional stability.
Olmert said that these changes had considerable influence on the desire to reach peace with Israel and on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Regarding Syria, Olmert reiterated that Israel had no intention of attacking Syria and he made it clear that both sides needed to be wary of any miscalculation that could lead the two countries into a confrontation that neither was interested in.
Concerning Lebanon, Olmert deplored the smuggling of weapons to Hizbullah from Syria. He added that the international community must take steps to ensure that UN Security Council Resolution 1701 was implemented in full.
The two men also discussed a series of regional issues and bilateral security and strategic relations.
In her talks with Gates, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned that the countries under threat from Iran were testing the Free World and vacillation was perceived as weakness. This might create a desire to appease Iran, she said. Livni cautioned that only the determination of the international community would keep the "moderate camp" on the same side.
"We live in a neighborhood in which a projected image is very meaningful," she said. "If the impression is that the world is losing to the 'neighborhood bully,' they will want to join him." Before leaving Israel, Gates visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, accompanied by Peretz.
AP contributed to this report.